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Monday, October 5, 2015

A Childlike View

The following is the scripture reading and sermon delivered by Mike Powers, member of the West Des Moines United Methodist Church tat Edgewater Retirement Community on October 4, 2015.

Romans 12 (NRSV)

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to
faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I was speaking to one of my work colleagues the other day and she was telling me about a marketing class that she had attended.  The instructor asked the class, “What does a four month old baby see when he or she looks around?”    The answer is everything!  A baby is fascinated by everything because everything is new and requires study by the infant to be understood and retained in his or her memory.

This is backed up by scientific studies of visual cognition in infants.  When seeing faces or objects for the first time, babies will study them very intently soaking in as much information as they can.  Over time as they have more exposure to those same faces and objects, the infant will spend less time looking at them.  

This instinct follows us throughout our lives.  Our human brains employ a form of short hand to bypass a lot of processing time that would otherwise be spent analyzing what we deem to be familiar subjects freeing up a limited resource—the brain’s processing bandwidth—to be available to tackle the analysis of new subjects.  

Youngsters not only look at things more closely than we do they also ask lots of questions—some of them can be a bit amusing but they do show what it means to look at the world with unfiltered eyes.

Darlene was a little 3 year old girl sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story.  She would stroke her grandfather’s cheek and then do the same to her own.  Finally she spoke up, “Grandpa, did God make you?”

“Yes darling, he answered, He made me a long time ago.”

“Oh,” Darlene paused, “Grandpa, did God make me too?”

“Yes, indeed He did sweetheart.  He made you just a short while ago.”

Feeling their respective faces again, Darlene observed, “God’s getting better at it  isn’t He?”

There are probably valuable lessons that we can learn from observing the youngsters in our lives.
Simply letting our brains work they way they normally do may be an efficient way for us to function, but there are pitfalls.

Relying upon old beliefs rather than taking the time to take a fresh look at people, places and things can be limiting and inhibit our ability to recognize changes—new things.  You might think that the brain sees what the eyes send it but in reality the eyes only see what the brain allows them to see.
We have all had the experience of looking for something that was right in front of us—if it had been a snake it would have bitten us.

The Apostle Paul in the scripture passage that I just read urges us to “not be conformed to this world” but rather “be transformed by renewing [our] minds”.

One of the ways that I think we are often conformed to this world is to buy into the feeling of cynicism that seems to be so pervasive.  To hear many folks tell it we are in a period of accelerating decline and there is little that we can do to avert impending disaster.

Just so you know, pessimism is not just a recent phenomenon.  Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little”.  I will admit to you that I am older than forty-eight and I am an optimist.

Let’s look at just a few of things that have been accomplished over the span of our lifetimes, all of which by the way occurred after Mark Twain made his remark.

 Following World War II and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, free democratic governments are firmly in place in many countries formerly ruled by dictatorships such as Germany, Japan and numerous countries in Eastern Europe, Central and South America.  More people live in free, self-governed societies today than ever in the history of the world.

 Over that same time period, amazing medical advancements and improvement in public health resources have extended life expectancy by about ten years here in the U.S. and about 20 years world-wide.  

 Breakthroughs in communications--the invention of the Internet, cell phones, satellite television and social media-- have put people living far apart in closer touch than ever before imagined and have made a wealth of information universally available in the palm of your hand.  We can see and talk to our grandkids on a phone that we carry in our pocket—something that would have seemed like science fiction not that long ago.

 In 2014 an agency of the United Nations reported that over the previous decade the number of hungry people had declined by 100 million and that it was within reach of achieving its goal of cutting in half the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries.

 While we still have a ways to go, we have become a society that is more tolerant of those who have been historically marginalized due to race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities.

 I say all of this not to pretend that there are not significant challenges before us.  It would be na├»ve to say that.  The reason that I am taking note of the historic progress that has been made in recent times is to point out that this would not have occurred without the efforts of countless people striving to use their particular gifts to make everyday life better.

As Christians, we need to let the energy provided by the Holy Spirit to move us towards continuing to make our limited time here on earth more like the eternal bliss to come.  We can’t do that if we take the attitude that what we do won’t make a difference or doesn’t matter.  Everything counts.  No deed is too small.  We all have a role.  And we have a guide as to what to do.

The 12th chapter of Romans speaks to the characteristics of what it means to live a Christian life.  It speaks to the transformation in thinking that occurs when one becomes a follower of Christ.  They are not easy things to do in all cases.  It may require us to break patterns of thinking that may have become bad habits on our part.  We may need to cast aside stereotypes and some ways of thinking that may have become ingrained and instead think more like that child for whom everything is news.  Let’s take a fresh look at how we think and live with others.

The essence of Paul’s message in Chapter 12 is that we should subordinate our selfish interests to the interest of the larger community of followers of Christ—Christ’s one body.  Paul asks each of us to not to think of ourselves but that we should use our own unique gifts for the benefit of God’s one body the church.

We can each take an inventory of our own strengths and special skills and determine what we can do to help others.  Certainly something that each of us can do is to treat each other with generosity and cheerfulness.Paul explicitly tells us that we should be genuine in our love for each other, reject evil, hold on to what is good and extend hospitality to strangers.

My guess is that you have new residents coming into this community here fairly frequently.  I encourage you to follow Paul’s advice and extend a warm hand of friendship to them and help the newcomers navigate the transition to their new home with kindness and support.

I can tell you that when my wife Libby and I joined the West Des Moines United Methodist Church after having moved to Des Moines from the Chicago area, we did not know a soul at the church and the warm welcome and heartfelt friendship that was freely given was really important and much appreciated by us.  

So up to now you may be thinking, “OK, that does not seem to be too difficult.  I’m a nice person and can be friendly to others.”  Next is where Paul steps up the challenge for us in a pretty significant way.  He tells us to bless and not curse those who persecute us and to not repay evil for evil but rather to think in a more noble fashion.  If our enemies are hungry we are to feed them.  If they are thirsty, provide them with a drink.  Overcome evil with good.

This message of extending comfort to our enemies is what really distinguishes the teachings of Jesus from all that came before.  Before Jesus’ began his teaching, the rule of society was pretty much of the “eye for an eye” mentality.  Jesus told us that the two most important commandments are for us to love God and to love our neighbor with neighbor being defined in the broadest sense of that word.

This core tenet of our faith was so radically new and such a different notion that it demonstratively marked the new Covenant that God has made with each us.

We are to love, not judge.  Be kind, not vengeful.  Help, not destroy.  Think of others, not ourselves.  In essence, be servants to others just as Jesus was a servant to us.  He served as the perfect role model for us to follow.While I earlier recounted the many good things that have happened in the world in recent times, evil has not been vanquished. We don’t need any clearer reminder of this than the shootings at the college in Oregon this past week and the countless similar stories that preceded it.  We also have the ongoing horror of war in Syria which has cost the lives of many thousands of innocent people and driven millions from their homes into a refugee status.

It has been reported that the students in the Oregon college were asked by the shooter if they were Christian and if they said yes he shot them.  In the Middle East, terrorist groups target Christians for persecution.

I don’t know if any of us can truly say how we would react if faced with the prospect of immediate death if we truthfully professed our faith in Christ.  I’m sure we would all like to think we would stand firm in such a test but it is impossible to speculate.  We certainly admire and pray for God’s special mercies on those who were confronted with such an ordeal.

Being a Christian can be difficult but my hope and prayer is that none of us would be in a situation like that experienced by the people in Oregon or the Middle East or other places where admission of faith can lead to death.  But we do face a tough challenge nevertheless.

It would be easy for us to hate the perpetrators of such horror.  Certainly we can condemn the despicable acts taken and we can take steps to protect ourselves in the future but it is not up to us to judge the people involved.  That is God’s job, not ours.  

Paul tells us that Jesus expects us to extend a blessing and not a curse to our enemies.  Remember Jesus’ words from the cross—“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”   So let us pray for the souls of those responsible for these acts in addition to extending our love and support to everyone impacted by these tragedies.

Above all, we need to take to heart Paul’s final admonition in today’s reading-- to not be overcome by evil but rather to overcome evil with good.

 So let us each act as God’s instrument for good.

 Let us recapture that child-like sense of wonderment and look at the world with fresh eyes seeking out ways that we can help others which we may have previously overlooked.

 Let us recapture our appreciation and be thankful for the many beautiful and awe-inspiring things with which God has blessed us.

 Let us not allow evil to win by ourselves becoming evil.

 Let us work to do whatever we can to make our community a safer, more tolerant, kind, loving, fulfilling and peaceful place.

 Let us show our love for God and for our neighbors in everything we do.

In doing so we can truly live our faith.  We will be following the example that Jesus gave to us and we can in turn serve as a model for others to do the same.   Let’s do this and give evil a little less room in which to operate.